Alex Elman goes right to the source.
Born into a foodie family, Alex Elman was destined for a career in food and wine. But she was also destined for blindness. At age 27, the budding wine connoisseur lost her sight due to complications from Type-1 diabetes—a condition, she notes, that has been associated by some researchers with exposure to toxic environmental chemicals.
But rather than destroying her life, Alex’s blindness allowed her to focus her already amazing wine palate just a little more intensely. Her uncanny ability to single out truly special wines, combined with her passion for sustainability, led her to launch Alex Elman Wines—a collection of accessible, organic and divine wines—earlier this year.
Alex now travels the world seeking out sustainable fine wines to bring to the U.S. market, with Hanley, her seeing-eye dog at her side. We sought her out to get her visionary take on wine deconstruction, what makes a “correctly made” wine, why organic is essential—and what sustainable change she’d make today if she could (hint: it involves French fries). Part Two of Four.
EcoStiletto: What do you mean by a “correctly made” wine? What kinds of things are you tasting for, with that awesome palate of yours?
Alex Elman: What is the makeup of the soil? Is it clay? Is it chalky? Volcanic? In a correctly made wine, I should taste the minerality and the climate. With wines that come from a marine climate, such as northwest Spain or Napa, I should be able to taste the saltiness from the sea air. I’m really looking for wines that are being made in traditions of the area the grapes come from. If I’m in the vineyard, I look at what’s growing around it. Flowers? Artichokes? Olives? I recently tasted a Muscat that was growing next to a cherry grove and apricot grove, and I could taste those fruits in it. If it’s a young wine, it shouldn’t have any oak in it. These things are a big part of what I’m looking for.
ES: Are your wines sustainable or organic—and what’s the difference?
AE: First off, you have to separate domestic from imported wine. Imported wines, like mine, are subjected to much more rigorous control than domestic wines. If an imported wine says it’s made from organically grown grapes, it has to be certified by an organization like Eco Cert or by the governing body from the country where it is made.
To be certified, you have to have 10 meters of land where nothing is grown between the vineyard and the next winery so there is no contamination from runoff. The wine can’t use any man-made pesticide, herbicide or fungicide. And for a wine to be called organic in Europe or South America, they have to go through a three year “conversion process” before they’re allowed to be called organic. So if they became organic now, they’d still have to wait three years before becoming certified.
Imported sustainable wines mean the winery is committed to practicing sustainability, but still has the option to use chemicals if they have a really bad year.
ES: What’s the story with sulfites?
AE: There are lots of misconceptions about sulfites, which naturally occur in grape skins, and also in apple skins and other things. Regarding added sulfites, with imported organic wines, the requirement is less than 100 parts per million of added sulfite for red wines, and less than 120 parts per million of sulfite for white wines. For a lot of organic imported wines, they don’t even add the full amount that is allowed. Mine, for instance, are 60 parts per million for red, 70 parts per million for white.
There are also “no sulfites added” wines, which have no added sulfites, but have naturally occurring sulfites. Everything has little bit of sulfites. And the truth is that only a very small percentage of the population has a sensitivity to sulfites. What they’re really reacting to when they say they’re sensitive to sulfites are the pesticides and chemicals used to make the wines.
Want more? Alex Elman deconstructs the flavor, certification, history and style of organic wines in our exclusive four-part interview.